BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.


On Playtesting: Small Steps, Giant Leaps


Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Sun Tzu

How does change happen? That’s the question that’s been occupying me, in amongst the many recent playtests of my and other designers’ games. The initial creative spark is remarkable enough, but no game arrives fully formed, and so all games once created go through a process of change. Playtesting is the method we rely on to both initiate and validate those changes, and it is the very blackest of arts.

For one thing, it can be incredibly painful. Reaction to a new game can range from elation to derision or — which is demonstrably worse — indifference. As a designer you have to learn to suffer these slings and arrows and emerge unscathed, even if your game does not. But what happens then? If playtesting reveals that all you ever had was a bad idea, that’s one thing: throw it out and start over. But if playtesting reveals that you gave a good idea a bad execution — signalled by the playtester’s familiar refrain: “I like it, but…” — then the designer’s work is only just beginning.

First, the designer must learn to properly filter the playtesters’ comments: to tease out, as dispassionately as possible, some degree of genuinely objective meaning. And, assuming that’s possible, the designer must then have the gumption to actually do something about it: to embrace change. However, it is the received wisdom about the nature of that change that I would seek to challenge.

The risk is that game design is perceived from the outset as a process of necessarily iterative, evolutionary change: small, inevitable steps taken along a path that, if through nothing more than plain, plodding perseverance, will eventually reach its goal. But this approach, with each step taken to address a detail not the whole, can, perhaps paradoxically, often excise the heart of the game while leaving the surface scarred but intact.

My advice then is this: that radical, truly transformative change is, far more often than not, the only way forward. It will feel unpredictable, unstable, counterintuitive, dangerously uncontrolled, but the simple truth of it is that anything more timid is just death by a thousand cuts.

No, that’s not the truth of it. The truth, as Wilde observed, is never simple. But I see the result of timidity in my own designs and in those of others: I see it as a palimpsest of carefully placed, well-intentioned footprints, each one obscuring a little more, precisely that which the designer was seeking to reveal.

Change is necessary; a journey is demanded; and if you take big enough leaps the footprints disappear.

David Brain said...

January 26, 2012 11:57 am

Perhaps this is a part of the endless debate about what is "design" and what is "development"? That all those little iterative changes are indeed a part of the process, but that it isn't always obvious when they should take over - and whether once that process has started, there is the natural assumption that the radical overhaul has been set aside as an option because it feels as though it makes all the little fiddly adjustment work a waste of time (not to mention the foundation work in the first place!)
As with much else, what you learn from your failures is often as useful - if not more so - that what you learn from your successes. That process of assimilation helps you to get better - if only at the level of recognising stupid mistakes earlier...

That closing line is quite nice.

It is hard to be frank as a playtester, and hard to make truly constructive comments. I think voicing shortfalls is almost inevitably discouraging to the designer, but the tester has to trust that his comments are received not as personal criticism but as necessary data for course correction on, as you say, the journey to a good game.

On the other hand, as a designer, I will say that it really stinks when the playtesters just don't "get it." ;-)

I could not disagree more. Wild changes are just that: wild. The larger your change, the less predictable its results and the more likely you'll incur collateral damage in your design.

Yes, small steps are slow. But at least you can watch your steps head in the right dirextion. Jumping around is as likely to lead you backwards. Worse, you won't even understand why you went backwards. The subtle interplay between mechanics will be obscured by haphazardly changing them all at once.

Change is indeed a good thing, but it needs to be a controlled change. And more importantly it needs to be a required change. Change for the sake of change can be more damaging than no change at all.

I look at play testers as mutual designers when we get to sit down and play a game. This goes back to when you are kids and you change the rules to games to make them more fun. My job as the head designer is to come up with something that gets us on the pitch. After that we have the whole field to play on. Sometimes there doesn't seem a goal no matter how much we kick it around, other times it comes easily after a bunch of give and take. I am always open to try new takes, but I feel my job is to always hold onto the original idea for the game in case one of those wild chances goes too far afield. Small steps can work on tweeking, but that initial play, I feel, must be a total free for all and see what is possible.

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